The It Toy

Sometimes the toys children want the most are the very ones that cause parents uncertainty — not just about our budgets, but also our values. 

Items that top a kid’s wish list can present parents with a multitude of toy-buying dilemmas.

It could be a doll that each of your child’s friends has, but comes with a hefty price tag. Or maybe it’s a tablet or phone: Are you ready for that? Are your kids? 

Is the It Toy this year even age appropriate for your kid? Does your kid want it only because it’s popular? How much is too much to spend on a toy that might be a quickly passing fad? And what kind of precedent will you set for future years if you cave this year? 

The truth is, you may never know the “right” answers. But here are some strategies to consider when making your toy-buying decisions.

Delaying gratification

To Willmar mom Shanna Gebhard, the season’s It Toy is whichever one her 6-year-old daughter, Peyton, “really, really wants.” 

Right now, more affordable Shopkins toys and Poppit clay kits top Peyton’s list. 

But when Peyton’s most desired It Toy was a set of American Girl Bitty Twins dolls, she didn’t stop talking about it for a whole year, Gebhard said. Peyton spent hours looking through the catalog, carried it around the house with her and picked names for the twins.

Her mom, after delaying her daughter’s gratification for a year, figured it would be worth the splurge on the $125 set of dolls. 

She was right: Bitty Twins Charlotte and Loretta go almost everywhere with Peyton. And they encourage imaginative play that doesn’t involve screen time.

Gianna Kordatzky — a New Brighton mom of four, who co-authors a website featuring free and low-cost family-activity ideas (Family Fun Twin Cities) — found herself in a similar situation, but handled it a bit differently. 

When her two daughters wanted American Girl dolls at the same time, she was in for double sticker shock. 

She told the girls they could have the dolls if they pitched in, too. 

After about a year of saving their birthday and Christmas money, they made their purchases with Mom and Dad covering the remaining cost. 

Kordatzky recommends the dolls for kids at an age — about 7 or 8 — when they're are young enough to engage in lots of imaginative play, but also old enough to appreciate earning money for a big toy purchase.

Cultivating imagination 

Brenda Schaeffer, a licensed psychologist in Minneapolis who has worked with many local children and families, is a proponent of gifts that help children be artistic and imaginative. She said between the ages of 3 and 7, children are highly creative and it’s one of the most important aspects of their development. 

Kordatzky favors giving outdoor toys for staying active such as roller blades and bikes. She also keeps her kids stocked with art supplies. 

“Who doesn’t love getting a new box of crayons?” she said. “Even I think that’s cool.” 

Many popular toys are heavy on technology. Schaeffer said it’s OK to give that type of It Toy, but balance it with other toys that encourage more imagination. 

Gebhard won’t buy anything electronic for Peyton, not wanting to add to the overload of screen time she gets from cartoons and the iPads she uses at school to learn to read. 

In addition to the brand-name toys in her collection, her daughter has a tiger and giraffe made of wood and rope, which Gebhard describes as “the most primitive looking toy animals I’ve ever seen.” 

Despite their rudimentary aesthetic, the toys are some of Peyton’s favorites. 

“Sometimes the simplest toys make the best toys, because then their imagination kicks in,” Gebhard said. For Peyton’s animal toys, the bathtub becomes a watering hole, the backyard a savannah. 

“She’s seen The Lion King a few too many times,” Gebhard said. 

Giving experiences

Beyond toys that foster the imaginative qualities in children, families are turning to giving experiences instead of tangible gifts. Gebhard attributes her daughter’s creative play abilities to the theater performances they’ve attended together since Peyton was a baby. 

Last year, attending her first ballet performance was one of her favorite Christmas gifts. 

“There is so much you can do besides a toy under the Christmas tree,” Gebhard said. “We live in such an amazing area for things for families to do.”

Kordatzky agrees. The It Toy in her house right now is LEGO sets of all kinds, but she offers her children the choice between a nice gift like a large LEGO set or a fun outing such as the Minnesota Zoo. 

One benefit to giving experiences isn’t having quite so many toys cluttering the playroom or needing to be thrown away when they break. With four kids, that’s especially helpful. 

“We have Hot Wheels tracks all over and I don’t know how to control it!” she said. 

Kordatzky also holds back on toys because the children’s grandma is a generous gift giver. 

“We want our kids to be grateful for what they have, and not expect things or think they deserve them,” she said. 

Instilling gratitude, too

In a season that seems to revolve around kids’ lengthy wish lists, it’s never too early to learn about gratitude and giving to others. 

“The concept of giving and sharing is really important, because children can be very self-centered. Especially today they need to learn the values of caring for others,” Schaeffer said.

There are many parents now involving their children in volunteering with nonprofit organizations, Schaeffer said, and that’s one way to help children to learn the pleasure of giving. 

Acts of kindness needn’t be done solely through an organization, however. A person in need might be closer than you think. 

“There is a lot of loneliness around the holidays,” she said. “Parents should really look around and see if there are people in their lives like an elder — or a child who isn’t likely to get one or many gifts.” 

When children give presents to family, parents can encourage gifts that are handmade and heartfelt. Schaeffer fondly remembers her own grown children once writing her notes to be used as coupons for things such as breakfast in bed. 

It’s one more way to teach children that gifts are from the heart and aren’t always physical objects.

As with many things, holiday gifting is all about balance. 

“I personally love gift giving,” Schaeffer said. “It’s OK to spoil a child over the holidays, as long as they know it’s just once a year.”

Abbie Burgess is a Twin Cities freelance writer and lifestyle blogger at